As the United States' combat mission in Iraq draws to a close, it is fitting to look back on the war and its legacy so far. In most left-of-center commentary, the folly and criminality of the war in Iraq is now an article of faith, and anyone who ever supported it has a black mark against him. Yet, as someone ambivalently pro-war in 2003, I remain unrepentantly ambivalent and far from certain about history's eventual verdict. Ironically, President Obama's August 31 Oval Office speech marking the war's official end reflects nothing if not ambivalence, Obama's early anti-war stance notwithstanding.
Some facts are undeniable: the weapons of mass destruction of which Saddam Hussein's alleged possession was the ostensible reason for the invasion never turned up. It is also fairly clear that, in the buildup to the war, the Bush White House disregarded evidence that did not fit its casus belli—though it is a far cry from that to the charge that Bush deliberately "lied," and the belief that the Saddam Hussein regime was hiding WMDs was widely shared among Democrats.
Few would also dispute the conclusion that the war and the occupation were badly mismanaged from the start, due in large part to the previous administration's arrogance and incompetence—with tragic results for far too many U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians.
But what if we had not gone to war? David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, argues in a recent column in The National Post, a Canadian daily, that a Saddam Hussein regime left intact in 2003 would have become far more dangerous due to new wealth from rising oil prices and the probable collapse of sanctions—and would have eventually ended in a violent downfall with massive casualties from sectarian battles. Such suggestions are easy to dismiss as speculation intended to justify the war in hindsight. Yet the truth is that what-ifs stressing the benefits of not going to war can be just as speculative. It is far from certain that if we had not sent troops to Iraq, our forces would have been more successful in Afghanistan or would have captured Osama Bin Laden.
President Obama's speech, as one might expect, stressed the costs—human, social, political, and economic—of going into Iraq. Yet he also spoke in surprisingly positive terms about many aspects of the U.S. mission.
He noted that American troops in Iraq "defeated a regime that had terrorized its people" and, "together with Iraqis and coalition partners who made huge sacrifices of their own fought block by block to help Iraq seize the chance for a better future." He asserted that "because of our troops and civilians—and because of the resilience of the Iraqi people—Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain." He praised the successes of Iraqi elections and emphasized "our long-term partnership with Iraq, one based upon mutual interests and mutual respect."
This must be a bitter pill to swallow for many of Obama's supporters—those who regard the war as an American atrocity against Iraqis (often characterized in left-wing venues in starkly racial terms, as the slaughter of "brown people"). Such a view is now fairly standard on the left: at the height of the controversy of the "Ground Zero mosque," a satirical piece by a Salon.com blogger noted that if an enemy attack that kills thousands of innocents creates a "sacred ground," then the Iraqis should be grateful to the United States for giving them "hundreds of such sites." To people with that mindset, Obama's praise for the American role in Iraq must sound like monstrous hypocrisy—literally adding insult to fatal injury. Never mind that most of the deaths were at the insurgents' hands.
It would be absurd to claim that the war in Iraq was a human rights triumph. Salon.com's Joe Conason has a point when he notes that shocking cases of detainee abuse in Iraq have compromised our moral standing. To take on the role of an occupying force places the military in an extremely tough quandary: being too aggressive in dealing with the local population creates the risk of backlash and resentment; not being aggressive enough creates the risk of a anarchy, causing resentment toward the troops for failing to protect the population. U.S. troops have faced Iraqi anger and disappointment for both reasons.
Despite all these problems, polls conducted in Iraq since the war began have shown a complex picture that does not fit into the left-wing narrative of the war any more than it does into a pro-war script of U.S. soldiers being greeted as liberators. Survey after survey has showed Iraqis more or less evenly split on whether the 2003 invasion was right or wrong. (In a 2009 survey, only 28 percent said that it was "absolutely wrong.") This is a remarkable fact considering than it is a natural human instinct to strongly oppose the invasion of one's country by another power—particularly one with a different culture and a different majority religion—and that the respondents included people who held privileged positions under the Saddam Hussein regime. When the question is phrased differently, between 60 and 75 percent of Iraqis have agreed that Saddam's ouster was worth it despite the hardship. Only a quarter prefer the way things were in prewar Iraq.
Do these findings give us a mandate to depose oppressive regimes everywhere? Of course not. They do, however, put our actions in perspective. Whether or not Operation Iraqi Freedom was a blunder, only time will tell—as even some strong critics of the war, such as former Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean, concede. But it is not too early to say that Americans are not the villains in this story. That role belongs to the dictator who drove so many of his subjects to welcome a foreign invasion, and to the extremists who unleashed carnage on their own.
Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at cathyyoung.wordpress.com. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics. This column previously appeared at Reason.com.